For a stodgy state Senate hearing, it was a crushing moment – a high school freshman breaking down in tears at the lectern in front of lawmakers while trying to explain her experience with bullying at Helena High School.
Another teenager in the crowd, who had also just testified about the impact of bullying, stepped forward and wrapped her arm around the sobbing girl and the testimony continued.
Last January when the Montana Legislature was in session, Chanda Mickel told her story about a group of girls in her school who spread rumors and lies about her both in school and through electronic media, creating an atmosphere that was critically debilitating.
“I wanted to die, just completely disappear.” Mickel said through tears, never looking up at the members of the senate committee on Education and Cultural Resources.
In her case the bullying was both verbal and physical and though she went to school officials eventually, it didn’t stop.
“I didn’t understand why I was always the target,” she said. “I thought I deserved it like I wasn’t good enough for anyone or anything… I don’t enjoy high school like my peers because I have to watch everything I do and say.”
Mickel was testifying in support of Senate Bill 141 that was passed out of the Senate with bipartisan support to its ultimate defeat in the House.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kim Gillan (D – Billings) was intended to provide some statewide definitions for school bullying and direct school districts to plan for educating students and staff about the problem and provide clear discipline procedures in addressing the issue.
The hearing highlighted the fact that bullying is a growing problem for school administrators, teachers, parents and students around Montana, which now is one of four states not to have passed anti-bullying legislation. However, no one seems to disagree that bullying is a growing problem.
A recent advertisement in The Madisonian asking for people to step forward who had been or whose children had been bullied in the Sheridan School Districts is maybe the most recent signal of the problem in Madison County. And though The Madisonian talked to several parents who said their children had been bullied in Sheridan, none would go on the record for this article. Katie Ward, who placed the advertisement in The Madisonian also had no victims step forward.
However, everyone interviewed on the record agreed that bullying is a problem not only in Sheridan but also in schools across Madison County and the state.
Statewide 23 percent of high school students report being bullied, 38 percent of 7th and 8th graders say they’ve been bullied and 18 percent of high school and junior high students report being cyber bullied.
In Madison County, surveys of local students show similar ratios. The Montana Office of Public Instruction administers the Youth Risk Behavior Survey every two years. In 2009 and 2011 questions specifically related to bullying were added to the survey. In 2009, 19.3 percent of Madison County high school students said they had been bullied. In 2011, that number had grown slightly to 20.5 percent.
Bullying is distinguishable from normal teasing or conflict that naturally happens with children both young and old, said Amy Foster Wolferman, researcher at the Montana Safe Schools Center at the University of Montana in Missoula.
“With bullying there’s always an imbalance of power,” Wolferman said.
With normal conflict, parties commonly shift positions of power – one person might initiate teasing or a confrontation one time and the other person might be the instigator the next time, she said. That’s more normal give and take adolescent or childish behavior.
With bullying, the child being targeted is never an instigator and never in a position of power, Wolferman said.
Bullying is also repetitive and purposeful, she said.
“It’s always intentional; it’s not by accident,” Wolferman said. “There’s no remorse involved. The one who is doing the bullying is enjoying it. The one who is being bullied never enjoys it.”
And if not interrupted by a teacher, parent or peer, the behavior can quickly spiral out of control, she said. The child who is being a bully can feel more and more empowered as the child being bullied responds inappropriately or inadequately to make the behavior stop.
“They start to feel they deserve it,” Wolferman said. “It’s a vicious downward spiral into low self-esteem.”
Techniques bullies use can take on many forms. Kids can be physically bullied on the playground or in school. They can be verbally bullied by name calling and insults. They can also be socially bullied by exclusion from activities. In recent years bullying has moved to the Internet in what is called cyber bullying, where bullies use social media websites, like facebook, twitter and myspace to harass, intimidate and demean their targets.
These social media venues can be used to spread socially damaging information to a large number of people or even a school.
This kind of thing happens far too often, said Denise Juneau, Montana Superintendent of Schools.
“It affects a student’s entire life, no matter where they are,” Juneau said. “Through this new medium it can be anonymous.”
Schools are now required to have some sort of anti-bullying policy, but currently there is no real clear definition about what that policy should include, she said. What OPI is trying to do is provide schools with as much data and resources as possible to help deal with the problem on the local level.
Part of this means conducting regular student surveys and finding model policies from schools around the state that seem to be addressing the problem in a constructive way, Juneau said.
The consequences of bullying can be dire, Wolferman said.
Kids who are being bullied tend to avoid school and come up with a wide variety of reasons and ailments to miss class.
“They start to lose interest in learning and different extra curricular activities they used to be interested in,” she said.
If the bullying progresses, they can start to seek isolation, become depressed and develop a lower self-esteem. Extreme cases can lead to homicidal and suicidal tendencies, Wolferman said.
A child who bullies kids can also show some tendencies, like being confrontational, anxious and depressed, she said.
Often children who bully are ostracized by many of their peers, but supported by a small group of students, she said. They tend to have a negative peer reputation and struggle academically.
Dealing with bullying is a constant and vigilant process and the schools that seem to be the most successful have clear policies on bullying that outline what it looks like and what students should do if they see someone being bullied or are bullied themselves, Wolferman said.
Bullying prevention should deal not only with stopping bad behavior, but teaching kids proper ways to interact with each other, she said. This is where adults sometimes struggle. It’s too easy to try and use only discipline to solve the issue rather than looking to treat the cause of the problem.
“That’s a hard thing for an adult to do,” Wolferman said. “This child who is doing the bullying, they have issues too and they need help. (We need to) remove judgment, remove blame and just meet the child where they’re at.”
Schools that seem to be addressing the problem most effectively began educating students on how to deal with bullies and bullying from kindergarten on, she said.
“If you get everybody on the same page and start used the same language it gets easier,” Wolferman said. “That’s why it’s good for schools to take it on school-wide and make it a mission.”
From a practical standpoint, dealing with bullying is a continuing effort, said Darren Strauch, superintendent at Harrison schools.
Harrison, like many schools, has a harassment policy and in recent years has updated it to specifically address bullying, intimidation, harassment and hazing, Strauch said.
“The (school) board went through and discussed that and there were people in the community that wanted tougher sanctions and more definitions,” he said.
Part of the approach at the Harrison School District is education, Strauch said. Guidance counselors work with students beginning in kindergarten to educate them about how to interact with each other and recognize and stop bullying.
Strauch’s approach to dealing with bullying incidents is an open-door policy. He makes sure that students know they can come talk to him or their teachers if they feel bullied. His first response to try and deal with the issue directly by talking to students and parents in an effort to get to the root of the problem.
However, it’s tough sometimes to get kids to step forward when they feel bullied.
“I’ve had multiple situations in the past where I’ve had to tell a parent or tell a kid that if I don’t know what’s going on I can’t fix it,” Strauch said.
There is still a school of thought, however, that bullying is normal and that it’s just a part of being kids, he said.
Strauch recognizes that it is difficult sometimes to sort out issues between kids. Sometimes bullying just isn’t as obvious as many people think it should be. However, diminishing its impact by dismissing it is not and can’t be an adequate reaction any longer.
“It’s something that we as school systems definitely have not been ignoring,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an option anymore to say ‘Oh it’s just small town stuff.’”